Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Open to Interpretation

MATTERS OF INTERPRETATION often arise when I am going off on my mental meanderings or being asked to participate in a dialogue. . . and sometimes I find myself in the middle of a tug-of-war between those who believe that there are so many ways to interpret a piece of art, musical composition, literary work, theatrical show, or even everyday event that it is not proper to exclude any interpretation that comes along and those who claim that, if it is actually impossible to make definitive judgments in the world of art and culture, complex analysis is senseless.

To the latter, I must stress that, indeed, it is important to analyze art and culture-- these things can define people, tell us who we were and where we were and give us clues as to who we should be and where we might go (or even convince us that there is no need to leave what has already been found to be good); these things can help us to understand others or help us to decide what is important in life and who is living well, what concepts such as "importance" or "living well" mean, in fact. To the former, I have a more detailed admonition.

First of all, though one work may have more than one interpretation, there are certainly interpretations that are far more plausible than others. To claim that all interpretation is a matter of opinion is a very dangerous attempt to come across as inclusive that backfires into an insane asylum (the loonies, naturally, giggle and dance as the bullet passes through). Although in the case of some important artists, writers, and musicians, interpretation can be quite like trying to make one's way through a murky bog because said great talent was intentionally vague (consider some of the works of Franz Kafka), most creative people (including Kafka), have left a trail of diaries, letters, and philosophical musings that can lead to fairly certain conclusions. Also, we can piece things together through the contemplation of history-- indeed, it might be a bit amusing to give Hamlet a Freudian twist à la Olivier, or to apply feminist discourse to the tale of Griselda and then imagine how different eras and cultures might view the same story by the same author, but does this really mean that a work itself has no set meaning? Wagner clearly wanted the stories he retold in his operas to be understood a certain way, wanted the music to be seen as grand and moving and filled with German pride; one may criticize his motives or claim that he did not achieve his goals (I would argue fiercely with this person), but it would be ridiculous to attempt to interpret, say, Tannhäuser as a criticism of oppressive social norms in the Medieval era rather than a dramatic testament to the power of Christian love and a warning against blasphemy. What even a scholar might fail to realize is that seeing the opera thus would have something to do with personal prejudice rather than true understanding of the work or the intent of its creator, and that the average student/reader might take that personal prejudice to be objective fact and never delve any further into the subject.

Second of all, why would anybody perpetuate a culture in which wild uncertainty is not merely a bit of a driving force but a goal in itself? I fear that this uncertainty will merely lead to such apathy that even democratic countries will fall sway to brutal tyranny. It becomes ever clearer to me, as I ponder history, that people may have made advances in technology, but they are choosing to ignore the worthwhile things which these new breakthroughs have given them unprecedented health and free time to pursue; that is, the humanities-- the things which make us human. The ones who seek enlightenment or seek to look enlightened might find themselves at a high-brow concert on Friday evening or in the art museum on Sunday afternoon if they have the means to be in such places, but how many people actively and consciously live as beautifully as they aspire to live, or even attempt to really do so? How many people realize that a new piece of furniture or a new political leader will not transform them into greater beings, for they must first transform their minds and actions? Or will somebody merely try to tell me that what constitutes a "beautiful life" is completely open to interpretation?

Saturday, 14 February 2009

For the Love of Ninotchka, Happy Valentine's Day!

IN HONOR OF THE DAY celebrated in many countries around the world as a day for love and lovers, I watched Ninotchka once again.

A witty romantic comedy from 1939, starring Greta Garbo as a stern Soviet official and Melvyn Douglas as a flirtatious count, Ninotchka remains humorous and charming to me even after multiple viewings; yet today I was struck by the underlying depth of the clever-but-light-hearted story.

At first, we see the character of Ninotchka as intelligent and dutiful, but too austere, too caught up in measurements and technicalities to appreciate the life and people she hopes to improve by means of her Communist ideology. Leon, the Count, a seemingly carefree man-about-town, not realizing at first that Ninotchka is the official sent by the Russian government to supervise the sale of the very jewels happening to have once belonged to his current companion, a Russian aristocrat, is immediately drawn to her. Throughout the first half of the film, we assume that he knows what love and laughter are, that she does not and oppresses all feeling, and that he teaches her how to love, and, in fact, most summaries do not seem to go any farther than this in their interpretations. Then, near the end, he makes a curious confession to the Dutchess, simple enough to be over-looked. He confesses that he loves Ninotchka, adding that he never thought anybody should speak of love because he thought the notion of true love silly and juvenile. . .

Ninotchka may have thought of "love" as a euphemism for "chemistry", but Leon had never before thought of "love" as more than a too-serious classification for a charming "game". Both the young Comrade and the young Count had something to learn about human relationships, namely, that they were not to be treated as mere biological necessities nor as social pastimes-- that they have something to do with mutual respect and admiration, that real love and real friendship would help a human being better himself more than cold science or cold cash alone.

Perhaps it seems an obvious moral when thus stated, but on a day such as today (and indeed, every day), I believe it to be one worth contemplating. I leave you, dear reader, with this bit of Latin as a blessing:

Cras amet qui nunquam amavit; quique amavit, cras amet.

That is, "May he love tomorrow who has never loved;
And may he who has loved, love tomorrow as well."

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Bonne Journée: An Etymological Musing on Time

"HAVE A NICE DAY!" Is all that the clerk at the local fruiterie is really telling me as I walk into the sunlight carrying my bags, but my mind is wandering already. . . journée does sound quite a bit like journey, for the simple reason that the English word for a trip, with connotations of personal growth and development, comes from the very same French word.

This having been noted, I wonder to myself, walking down the street, at how interesting it is that this little word that conjures up images of so many remarkable things to me, ships and aeroplanes, learning, starting at one place and reaching another with many experiences along the way, some enlightening, some disappointing, some exciting, is a word that measures time. First came the Latin diurnus, "of the day
", then the Old French journée, "a day's work or travel". In the 1700's, journey still referred to "the travel of a day", and the term Journeyman, "one who works by day" retains the original French meaning of the word. . . but in this age, when the average person in general, and the average native English-speaker in particular, seems to want everything to happen ridiculously quickly, when we do not always remember the value of one day of our lives, I imagine that we also do not think that becoming a master of something, doing something truly great, requires the build-up of the work of many days.

It is perhaps hardly thrilling to think of one's travels in this light, but of course, the very term travel is itself even less appealing. . . the word having come from
travailler, "to toil or labor", French derived from the Latin trepalium, an instrument of torture, one can safely say that our modern notions about going from point A to point B must be somewhat different from those of the 12th Century. The German verbs associated with travel, reisen and fahren, were once related to war-making and walking respectively, but neither term has come into English to mean "travel". Odyssey and voyage are far less ominous, of course, but we speak more often of our "journeys" or "travels" or of life as a "journey" than we do of "voyages" and "odysseys", which are typically left to the characters of epics and myths. Could it be because many of us are busy complaining that we are toiling too much to be having great adventures, thinking about the "going away" aspect of a trip more than the arrival?

. . . And with that, my verbal odyssey is complete and I am at my front door yet again, bags of groceries in hand, thinking about what it really means to have a nice day. . .

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Island of Montreal

FROM HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA TO MONTREAL, PQ. . . after happily wandering about in Germany for a few months and taking a long break from this blog, I return, but this time writing from my new home in beautiful Montreal!

I have heard academics talk at length about "the city" and the implications of dwelling in big cosmopolitan centers, and I have certainly visited quite a few of them, but this is the first time that I have really experienced the excitement, the noise, the confusion, the occasional loneliness, and the perpetual surprises of everyday life in a city. My room has become my blissful sanctuary, the quiet eye of the storm of people and cars, where I am always accompanied by books, tea, and the scent of warm vanilla. . .

To be continued. . .